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g.u wideboat progress

chris collins

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It's getting harder to find suitable timbers for frames, I did used to plank the trees myself to get the right shapes, unfortunately this was making a long job longer and I really wanted to be a boatbuilder more than a sawyer. This butt had a bit of buttress to it which will just about suffice for this pair of frames.



The late-19th century day books for the carpenters at the Bank Newton yard have survived, and they show that over half their time was spent just in cutting up timber rather than making anything specific. Finsley Gate yard in Burnley was provided with a steam and later diesel (circa 1905, the engine having been tried unsuccessfully in a boat) engine powered saw, as was Wigan. Bank Newton seems to have continued to use manual labour, though sawn timber was probably supplied by the other yards.


Sourcing timber was also time consuming, with the diary of John Brockbank, a Lancaster ship builder in the late eighteenth century, showing that he travelled all over the country to find suitable timber.

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Talking of sourcing timber for specific applications reminds me of the building of a Curragh as used by St. Brendan on his voyage across the Atlantic (mythical or factual is open to conjecture). The reproduction vessel used by Tim Severin was built to the exact design, using the exact same methods, and some of the timber for it was chosen from the North facing side of a tree, that grew on the North facing hillside to get the hardest (IIRC) piece of timber. A fascinating read, and if Brendan did manage to reach some part of the 'New World' it would make his landfall pre-Columbus.



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The fore end frames are not normally attached to the bottom boards and would in a new build be fitted after the first strake had been steamed and fitted around temporary formers, having the old boat to work around slightly complicates matters, I'd like to try and get new bulkhead frames and deck beam into place and shored up before thinking about that first stake.

The port frame is in very poor shape, luckily the starboard one has kept the integrity of the planking lines although the diagonals are a long way out, If I take the outer shape of the starboard frame,the length of the original deck beam and, from the old bottom boards, the chine measurement, I should be able to get pretty close to original.


SPA50157 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


Ben our youngest son, was born in that fore end! :D

The midwife was telling Di to hurry as she was about to go off duty and she'd never had a baby born on a boat before. She asked me to pin newspaper up round the hull for hygene! She then wanted some boiling water, and I assumed she was going to scrub up, but that was for a cup of tea.


Edit to try to reproduce Chris's photo of the fore end - I copied the url but it didn't seem to work

Edited by Tam & Di
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  • 3 weeks later...

Hi, I have recently started work on the restoration of "Progress", in the interest of constructional accuracy any photographs,drawings anecdotes would be valued enormously.Obviously over the years it has deteriorated somewhat so any clues are going to help. many thanks, Chris

Yo Chris. I can be no help whatsoever - but good luck and, incidentally, how are things with you, your family and your ALFA ROMEOS?

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Yo Chris. I can be no help whatsoever - but good luck and, incidentally, how are things with you, your family and your ALFA ROMEOS?


Buon giorno Felipe,

I'd say it's entirely possible to own too many Alfa Romeos. Haven't you finished therapy yet?


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Hi Phil, How can you look at something that is going to be so desperately in need of paint and claim that you can be of “absolutely no help at all”?? Good to hear from you, hope your well and enjoying life, I'd kinda hoped that you might be coming down this way and find time to do the bedhole and drawer fronts on “Mimas”, it will all come together one day. Wife and family are fantastic and a welcome distraction from alfa's (just a little bit more to do on alfetta, lots on bertie.) Still hoping to get up your way on the motorcycle ….... one day.

Therapy for alfa romeos? That would be a bit like sending your wife to the surgeon because her figure was just too exciting, “oh excuse me doctor but what I really wanted was an ironing board” clearly Alfas are a therapy.

Many,many thanks to all the people who have contributed to this post,I really appreciate the goodwill,the compliments (who was it that said “your trumpet never sounds so good as when someone else is playing it”?, and most of all the anecdotes and information conveyed.

Sorry about the lack of updated pictures, I'll try and sort that soon.

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  • 1 month later...

A bit of a delayed update, an errant card reader (camera not tarot) and a couple of other pressing jobs means I'm behind with the updates and more importantly behind with the job, no change there then.

Would I like an alfa 75? Well yes, but a 33 stradale would be an even nicer way to get even further behind with the job.

I'm still in need of any photographic evidence of “Progress's” past life so if you do know of any please let me know (or better still post it on the forum) . A special “pretty please” to Tam & Di.

For the timber for this job I have been dealing with Kevin at Willows sawmills in Uckfield, East Sussex (01825 763507) it's been a real pleasure and he has sourced us a couple of exceptional planking butts, here's a couple of shots of him cutting some framing stock. Highly recommended.



SPA50164 by chriscollins1, on Flickr



SPA50163 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


In order to avoid ridiculously wide planks “Progress” has a couple of “stealer's" let into the bottom strake at the fore end, I had thought that they may have had a few fasteners to hold them before the bottom strake was fitted but can find no trace, just the normal side plank to bottom board spikes. Although some of the planking timber Kevin supplied would be wide enough to span both plank and stealer the resulting plank shape would be a bit extreme with some fairly weak short grain in that corner, so stealer's it is.



SPA50165 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


It's a nice surprise to find some little (manageable without a hernia) bits whilst your all keyed up for the big stuff.



SPA50172 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


There are a couple of photographs around that show “Progress” during construction, unfortunately the copies I have are quite poor so I won't try to reproduce them here, they do however show that the boat was built up over a set of dummy wooden formers or frames. I believe that this method was fairly common in this area, the immediate apparent advantage would be that if the adjacent strakes are tied together with rampers and a degree of flexibility built into the strake to former joints any shrinkage of the planks during construction is automatically taken care of. I'll try to clarify that with some photos later in the rebuild. (maybe also have a little discussion about the relationship of plank widths/lengths, tree sizes, shrinkage etc.). Anyway for now here's a shot of some temporary frames to allow me to steam that first bend. They are just tall enough to get the bottom strake shaped up. You'll obviously have noted the missing bottom board and you'd be right thinking that the boat might leak a bit like that, I normally leave out a board or two by way of the scarphs in the bottom strake until the boat is at least two strakes high as in the past I have had trouble with the bottom boards expanding and straining the fastenings through the scarph.

I'll try and catch up with the updates over the next couple of weeks, catching up with job will be a little more difficult.



SPA50170 by chriscollins1, on Flickr

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Gobsmacking amount of work Chris. Have only ever built Balsa aeroplanes from KielKraft.


Curious about Kevin's horizontal bandsaw - doesn't appear to have runners, nor does the piece. I can only conclude the timber is being run through the saw though, but how? ah! It's the saw. Seems to be at the end of it's track. Did a little helping out on a Scottish sawmill - no guard and vertical blade - they don't half fly about when they break! Luckily no-one got touched.


Hope this isn't diverting the topic, but there's some interesting stills HERE and footage of the same steam powered saw-mill HERE. Video's amateur, but gives an insight to hand signals and the noise. Little 'Pond Donkey' is much like a small Bantam pusher.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hi Derek, yes Kevins saw runs along a couple of rails at ground level, the log is dogged in place to keep it still on the lower cuts. With the benefit of hindsight the photo's could have been better. That's a lovely link to the steam powered sawmill,stunning saw and some stunning timbers, thanks for that.

The shape along the bottom edge of the plank will be dictated by the shape of the bottom boards and the amount of twist in the plank as it flows from the stempost back to the straight centre section, “Progress” is quite barrel sided, the bottom boards are 10ft wide on an overall beam of 12ft 6 inches so the bottom strake is angled out at 45 degrees, as we will see this makes for a fairly radically shaped plank. The shape of the top edge of the plank is ascertained by hanging a batten from stempost back to the centre plank hopefully coinciding with the shape of the original whilst getting a fair curve. First problem; find a batten around 25ft long with a nice straight grain, no knots or other hard spots, it won't have Wickes name on it for sure.



SPA50171 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


I'll deal with spiling the shape of the plank in a bit of detail as hopefully it may be useful to someone else, because of the shape of “Progress” this differed slightly from normal narrow boat practise but should give a general idea.

Once the batten position is finalised the shape of the plank can be spiled onto a spiling board cramped into position, due to the angle of the bottom strake it was found easier to make the spiling marks on the inside of the spiling board rather than the more normal spiling block/ outside of the board marks. Also because of the large amount of curve in the shape of the plank I found it easier to make some longer than usual templates for the fore end and scarph rather than joining several pieces of board together.



SPA50175 by chriscollins1, on Flickr



SPA50173 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


All fair? Then I can start striking marks from where the projected line of the inside of the top and inside bottom edges of the plank should be. In this photo I have marked three inches from where my plank edge should be to the spile, when I move the spile to the board that I want to mark out I will need to measure three inches out from this mark to get the true shape, I'll try to keep this distance a constant, if I do need to alter the distance I'll make sure to note it – the plank won't need any help from me to be an unlikely shape. The more marks the better really. I normally aim at around six inch intervals. Before I take the battens down I'll record the bevel of the lower edge of the plank, this bevel will vary as the plank curves round to meet the stempost so I'll check it at 12 inch intervals and mark it onto a strip of wood the same thickness as the plank for future reference.



SPA50177 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


With the spile transferred to the timber pile it can be moved around to try and best avoid any faults in the board, I normally tack a nail in place to mark the positions from the spiling marks, a good quality batten can then be used to make sure these lines are fair before pencilling in the shape of the plank, could be the worlds most expensive bagatelle board.



SPA50179 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


When the plank is steamed around the curve the inside radius compresses somewhat whilst the outer stretches, intuition would would make you inclined to say that the inside compresses less than the outside stretches – I have no proof of this though, any way the upshot is that if you take the length direct from a spile taken from the inside of the planking the the plank will be short when fitted. To counteract this I normally add a small amount, it obviously depends on the length of the curve as to how much this “small amount” is, but in this case 3/8 inch worked nicely.



SPA50181 by chriscollins1, on Flickr

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  • 2 weeks later...

Guess I failed at that attempt to clarify the spiling business then, I'll try and get some clearer pictures over the next few planks, I'm no photographer so when I get home and download the pictures that I hope will illustrate a certain detail it's not unusual to find I've got a shot of the wrong end of the boat!

So, plank cut, bottom edge bevelled (right hand side in this picture) , the top edge is normally, but not exclusively, cut and planed square.



SPA50198 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


In the good old days of Walkers and Bushell Bros the steam box would be large enough to take most of the plank and set a little distance from the boat being built, when the time was right the team would set to hoisting the plank out of the steam box, over to the boat and start cramping it around the frames. In these good new days there is only me on the team and if I have to move the plank any distance it will have cooled to much to do any bending. Best move the mountain to Mohamed. I try and set the plank up as close as possible to it's final position and fit the steam box over and around it. This particular plank was very top heavy and really didn't want to to be cooperative at all, with that and trying to cramp at those angles you just know that there is a farce in there just waiting to happen.



SPA50203 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


The equipment and to a degree the method of wooden boat construction often has more to do with what is to hand or easily available – well demonstrated by the varying ways of driving the bottom spikes alluded to earlier in the thread, steam boxes and boilers definitely come into this category.

I generally end up making a new steam box for each rebuild, each one a development and hopefully an improvement on the last, up till now they have been simple plywood tubes, light enough for me to throw off at the appointed time and with varying degrees of insulation. This time time I have gone a bit high tech and built one of alloy sheet with a more modern insulation, I'm thinking that the alloy will not soak up the moisture in the steam the way that plywood does and I'll get a more pliable plank quicker for it. I've also made this tube split along it's length as this will help removal within the confines of the dock.



SPA50211 by chriscollins1, on Flickr



SPA50204 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


The boiler is another of those “under development” parts, this is this years model, it has an uncanny resemblance to a gas bottle, just some quirky coincidence I guess.

Inside it looks a bit less like a gas bottle, the small tubes are to increase the surface area available to heat, the large centre tube holds about half a gallon of water which I can top up (red funnel) as the level drops. A gas blowlamp provides the heat. This model is working quite well, it is quick to raise steam, economical, reliable and mobile, should last until the next big idea then.

This particular steam box/boiler combination seemed to provide a good moist heat, possibly moister than previous setups so I have been trying piping in the hot exhaust gas to the steam box, just trying to use the energy more efficiently. This seemed to work well, about 10-15 degrees hotter over the length of the steam box.



SPA50206 by chriscollins1, on Flickr



SPA50209 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


All seems to work, plank is bent,it fits, farce not totally avoided (angles,slippery plank, cramps imitating scud missiles) but result shows no scars. I'd have loved to be apart of that team at Bushell bros first time round.



SPA50208 by chriscollins1, on Flickr

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Your steam generator is looking a little like the monotube steam generators as used in Doble steam cars. I have a full article on the latter, tricky piece of kit, but very efficient. Had dreams of a steam powered narrow boat back in 1980 using such a generator with a 'V' twin double acting engine. Ended up with a BMC 2.2. Ah well.


Single handed steaming and fitting of complicated shapes. Think there's an MBE lined up here.

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There is a piece of wood on the front of Castle Wharf that we call the 'pooh stick'. It is some type of spruce I think. It was left over from when the sawmill was there and has had various chunks chopped off it over the years as bits have rotted. It is still easily 70ft long I should think and must have had 15-20ft or so of it chopped off. I have always wondered how it got there.


Great to see the progess being made. Thanks for keeping us updated. Very interesting.

(ETA - sorry about the pun - not intended)

I have just spotted this post and can add a little bit more detail.


The pooh stick originally formed part of one of the roof trusses of the largest of W E Costin's boat-building sheds, so it must have been 80-85 foot long to give the clear span required for building full-length boats. It was salvaged when the shed was demolished c. 1982, partly because the regimental motto of the Inns of Court OTC (who were billeted in Berkhamsted during the Great War) was painted on it; unfortunately the inscription has long since weathered away.


The shed is shown on a map dated 1897 (it could have been much older) and the large timbers, being approx. 20" x 6" pine, were presumably brought by horse-drawn transport from the London docks. negotiating the turn into Bridge Street could have been interesting.


Chris G



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i still find this hard to take in all the work your putting into this. how many hours work do you think its taken you to get this far.

are you planning on keeping it or selling when your done.

do you think the it will be worth it in money terms when your done. or are you keeping it because you like the challenge of building things.


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  • 2 months later...

With the evenings drawing in there is a little more time to put captions to photo's, possibly not enough time to answer xadmx's question of “why?” To be honest it would be easier for a man to explain the inner workings of a woman's mind, certainly scared me off the keyboard for a while.

So the next plank, this “should” be an exact mirror image of the one just fitted, however if the original builder had to work around a fault in his timber stock there could well be a variation side to side, common sense says to work to the original intent. On “Progress” the length is slightly longer side to side but other than that identical. Should the next board in the pile be suitable it would be good to mark around the first plank to ensure the two are as alike as possible. As it happens the next board wasn't suitable, or the next, or the next,...........



SPA50230 by chriscollins1, on Flickr



SPA50231 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


With the first strake in on both sides I could start putting in another pair of frames, it's all a bit of a balancing act at this point, obviously the number one priority is to to copy the original shape and construction as accurately as possible, one piece out and a new piece in would be ideal, unfortunately pieces are falling off quicker than I can replace them – hence the big hole on the port side, not ideal but still enough to get a good copy of the original.




SPA50233 by chriscollins1, on Flickr



SPA50238 by chriscollins1, on Flickr


Over the years I have tried dealing with cutting the hoodings in the stempost in different ways, the easiest is to cut them using what is left of the original as a pattern, unfortunately this is normally the least accurate. Working the rebate as you go up the stempost using a batten hung on the frames to give the angle of the plank landing is far more accurate but generally involves a deal of balancing, contortions and ambidexterity. Once the angle has be accertained a block planed to the same pattern can be cramped to the post to guide the cutting.



SPA50241 by chriscollins1, on Flickr

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What an amazing thread, Chris this is obviously a labour of love as much as anything else and it is fascinating to see the progress (you try and come up with an alternative) you are making in the rebuild/restoration.


How do you plan what you do? Is it a whole boat approach always thinking a few moves ahead or do you throw yourself into each stage as you get to them?


Brilliant photos with the captions too, really brings alive the calculations and sweat and tears that go into your job.


Love the steam box too, very space age compared to the cast iron looking thing I remember from Keays yard.



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